Paul’s world was turned upside down.
Paul, the apostle, had his world turned upside-down when he first met Jesus. Concrete points of certainty were instantly turned into sand. His wonderful heritage; his training under Gamaliel; his rising status among the Pharisees; and his zealous antagonism against the budding sect of Jesus-followers—all this collapsed in the blinding light of a new vision. Everything Paul once “knew” as true was exposed: he had been wrong!
What did not change was Paul’s devotion to the Scriptures. And one text in particular stands out as the platform for Paul’s new insights in Christ: Jeremiah 9:23-24.
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” [ESV]
Paul cites or alludes to this text at a number of points, especially in writing to the Corinthians (as in 1 Corinthians 1:31). Why? Because in Jeremiah Paul’s key question—how does the soul operate?—was answered. How? By revealing that a psychological center exists in each soul. It is the center for that person on which everything else in life pivots. In current language it is Descartes’ “cogito”, Freud’s “ego”, and modern marketing’s “vision of your potential”. I refer to it as a “personal identity”. Or, more simply: “what or who we love most.”
Paul, relying on Jeremiah, reduced all such notions to one term: “boasting”. Boasting is what someone tells us when we ask, “what do you do?” or “what do you enjoy?” In a friendly conversation we always hear a person’s greatest boast within a few minutes of meeting him or her. It’s who they are, what they value the most, and what they offer to others.
So, after Paul’s world was turned upside down on the road to Damascus, Jeremiah made sense of the new view of life for him: my only proper boast is that “I have God at the center of my life!” That is what it means for God to be my God. So Paul no longer boasted about anything except that he—to use Jeremiah’s terms—“understands and knows” God!
If we take this insight one step further and add to it Paul’s language of enslavement to sin (as in Romans 6) we find just how upside-down life can become. If we adapt to the jargon of modern psychology, Paul’s “slavery” can be translated as “addictions”. That, in turn, exposes three deeply debilitating addictions: having our identity anchored in personal wisdom, might, or wealth.
The unique danger of these addictions is that no one fears or despises them. Rather, they are premier signs of success! What God “delights” in, instead, are relational commitments: love, justice, and righteousness. Each is other-centered! Each expresses God’s own goodness, displaying the spreading goodness that cascades out of God’s eternal triune communion.
Let’s consider, again, the key term for both Jeremiah and Paul: “boast”. It speaks of the self-centered soul who uses wisdom, might, or wealth—each viewed as a self-owned capacity—to make an impression on others. Or perhaps to control others. Each capacity—when recalling the promise the serpent used with Eve—makes us a bit more god-like.
Alternatively, to the person who boasts in God and who delights in what God finds delightful, the gifts of wisdom, might, or wealth, can become gifts from God that support love, justice, and righteousness.
Thankfully in the “right-side-up” world of eternity no one will ask us about our grades or our academic degrees, our sports trophies or our elected offices, or our financial bottom line. Instead everything will pivot on one statement: “Well done, my good and faithful servant! Come and enjoy my glory!” The doorway to that moment comes only through the cross of Christ. For all those who love the Christ who died for us, there is our true boast.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.